Reached a dead-end trying to figure out what to give a special someone for Christmas? If you have an inkling as to his or her musical preferences, the incredible number of greatest hits packages recently released just might provide the answer to your prayers.
Even so, remember: Tastes today are diverse and downright finicky; you might want to keep the receipt handy.The latest CD and cassette anthologies (forget vinyl albums - the format's virtually dead, if not quite buried) are modest to mammoth, single-disc sets to expansive . . . and expensive . . . retrospectives. These represent the works of artists from Madonna to Frank Sinatra, from Elvis Presley to Elvis Costello.
For the grand gift, the boxed-set is all the rage, launched by successful surveys of the careers of Bob Dylan (1985's "Biograph") and Eric Clapton ("Crossroads" in 1988). Earlier this year we got overviews spotlighting Simon & Garfunkel ("The Complete Collection"), Jeff Lynne's Electric Light Orchestra ("Afterglow") and Rush ("Chronicles"), but those were just the beginning of a flood of big-name box collections.
The latest include such tributes as "Lennon," "Lifelines: The Jimi Hendrix Story," "The Marvin Gaye Collection," "The Legendary Roy Orbison" and even one remembering the long-late blues pioneer Robert Johnson ("The Complete Recordings"). The Byrds fly again in a set that includes four songs newly recorded by reunited bandmates Roger McGuinn, Chris Hillman and David Crosby - one of them "From a Distance," currently a hit by Bette Midler. Elton John sums up his hit-making years so far with the aptly titled "To Be Continued . . . " Frank Sinatra, who just celebrated his 75th birthday, is the subject of two plump sets, "The Reprise Years," saluting his career since 1960 with Reprise Records, and "The Capitol Years" from the '50s.
But the biggest hoopla has been reserved for a four-disc compilation recalling the vintage years of Led Zeppelin, which, although defunct for a decade, has arguably never been "more popular, more pervasive, more . . . omnipresent,' especially on the radio, as journalist Cameron Crowe observes in notes for the collection.
The 54 songs were digitally remastered under guitarist-producer Jimmy Page's direction and, besides the epic ("Stairway to Heaven") and the familiar ("Whole Lotta Love"), include alternative versions like the live, almost-guitar-solo "White Summer/Black Mountain Side."
The highest-charting hit-package, however, is bound to be Madonna's "The Immaculate Collection," a dance through her spectacular five-year reign as pop's controversial princess, from "Holiday" through the new single "Justify My Love" and another new recording, "Rescue Me." The recording also features the new Q Sound technology, which produces a three-dimensional stereophonic effect.
So, from girl groups (the Go-Gos and Bangles) to dance remixes (by New Kids on the Block, the Cure and others) to instrumental filigrees (by new age composer Yanni, pianist Michael Jones and even movie- and TV-theme writer Danny Elfman), here's a list of new greatest hits sets we're aware of, with "multidisc" signifying expanded or boxed sets:
Asia, "Then and Now" (Geffen)
Associates Popera, "The Singles Collection" (Sire/Warner Bros.)
Badfinger, "The Best of Badfinger" (Rhino)
Bangles, "Greatest Hits" (Columbia)
BeeGees, "Tales from the Brothers Gibb" (Polygram; multidisc)
Blue Oyster Cult, "Career of Evil: The Metal Years" (Columbia)
The Byrds, "The Byrds" (Columbia/Legacy; multidisc)
Elvis Costello & the Attractions, "Girls, Girls, Girls" (Columbia; multidisc)
The Cure, "Mixed Up" (Elektra)
Joey Dee & the Starliters, "Hey Let's Twist!" (Rhino)
Electric Light Orchestra, "Afterglow"
Danny Elfman, "Music for a Darkened Theatre: Film and Television Music - Volume One" (MCA)
Peter Gabriel, "Shaking the Tree - 16 Golden Greats" (Geffen)
Gang of Four, "A Brief History of the Twentieth Century" (Warner Bros.)
Marvin Gaye, "The Marvin Gaye Collection" (MoTown; multidisc)
Go-Gos, "Greatest" (IRS)
Donny Hathaway, "A Donny Hathaway Collection" (Atlantic)
Molly Hatchet, "Greatest Hits" (Epic)
Jimi Hendrix, "Lifelines: The Jimi Hendrix Story" (Atlantic)
The Jets, "The Best of the Jets" (MCA)
Elton John, "To Be Continued . . ." (MCA; multidisc)
Robert Johnson, "The Complete Recordings" (Columbia; multidisc)
Michael Jones, "Michael's Music: A Michael Jones Retrospective" (Narada Artist Series)
Led Zeppelin, "Led Zeppelin" (Atlantic)
John Lennon, "Lennon" (Capitol; multidisc)
Madonna, "The Immaculate Collection" (Sire/Warner Bros.)
Milli Vanilli (yep), "The Remix Album" (Arista)
Van Morrison, "The Best of Van Morrison" (Mercury)
Roy Orbison, "The Legendary Roy Orbison" (CBS Special Products; multidisc)
Carl Perkins, "Jive After Five: The Best of Carl Perkins, 1958-1978" (Rhino)
Elvis Presley, "The Great Performances" (RCA-BMG)
Public Image Ltd., "The Greatest Hits So Far" (Virgin)
Bonnie Raitt, "The Bonnie Raitt Collection" (Warner Bros.)
The Romantics, "What I Like About You (and Other Romantic Hits)" (Epic/Associated)
Rush, "Chronicles" (Mercury)
Simon & Garfunkel, "Collected Works" (Columbia; multidisc)
Frank Sinatra, "The Capitol Years" (Capitol; multidisc)
Frank Sinatra, "The Reprise Years" (Capitol; multidisc)
Rod Stewart, "Downtown Train, Selections from the `Storyteller' Anthology" (Warner Bros.)
Technotronic, "Trip on This - The Remixes" (SBK Records)
Toto, "Past to Present 1977-1990" (Columbia)
Andreas Vollenweider, "The Trilogy" (Columbia; multidisc)
Yanni, "Reflections of Passion" (Private Music).